The Round Robin Letters – Yesterday’s Email!

By Linda D. Alexander

Years ago, people actually wrote extensive and detailed letters to each other in longhand.  Now for some of the younger set, that probably seems incomprehensible.  But it’s true!  And when those letters were sent from family member to family member, added on to, and eventually sent back to the person who started it – they were called round robin letters.  Wikipedia provides several descriptions of the term “round robin”, originated from the French ruban rond (round ribbon).  But for purposes of this article, the simple description above should suffice. 

There is noted in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Summer 2001, that a group of graduates has stayed in touch for 50 years via the round robins.  In fact one woman was quoted as saying, “I take care of anything that needs attention, then settle down in a comfortable chair to quickly read through the letters…then later I read through each one more carefully to savor everyone’s news.”  Another group from the class of 1944 from the University of Iowa School of Nursing has kept in touch for 63 years with 4-6 letters a year.  One woman has saved all of her letters – and they fill five notebooks! 

Among the Wolcotts, we have the Pierce/Wolcott women to thank for saving all their round robins beginning with Jane Minor Pierce Sackett, and ending with the death of her granddaughter, Clara Wolcott Driscoll Booth, in 1944.  Jane began writing to four of her seven children who were away at college in 1853.  Her letters were no doubt a breath of fresh air to her homesick children; long and newsy and full of the everyday world in Tallmadge, Ohio.  Jane’s daughter, Fannie Pierce, and Elizur Wolcott (son of Guy, Jr. and Annis Porter Wolcott) married in 1860, and had four girls before Elizur’s death in 1873.  Fannie and Elizur attended the Tallmadge Academy together, and then they were off to further schooling – she to Willoughby Female Seminary, and then to teaching, and he to Yale, and then to Andover Seminary in Massachusetts.  Fannie’s letters to sickly Elizur were beautiful and poetic; full of longing and love.  In 1858 she wrote, “Dear Distant Afflicted One, Oh that I had the wings of a dove to fly away; how little would this weary place hold me then.  Last night, I dreamed I saw you and wakened to the reality that it may be many a day before I do see you.”   

When the Wolcott daughters grew up, they, too, became the writers of the round robins – lengthy letters, full of details of their lives and surroundings.  Clara moved to Manhattan in 1888 to attend school and then work for Louis Comfort Tiffany; she saw the NYC subway built, wrote about cycling in Central Park, told about the plays and operas she attended, she detailed issues at work as well as providing descriptions of the sumptuous parties held by Mr. Tiffany at his intown mansion.  We also learned of her loves and marriages – she was widowed at age 30 and didn’t marry again until she was 47.  Younger sister, Emily, taught school for a while and then was off to the University of Michigan; she later taught school again in various places, including Queens, NY at one time.  From their letters, these Wolcott women appear never to have been held back by the constraints of the typical Victorian woman.  In fact, they set their own standard for the “New Woman”, the term for the evolving woman of the early 1900s.  Their mother, Fannie, continued to write about local events until her death in 1906 – marriages, births, funerals, 4th of July parades -- and she often began her letters with “Dear Robins”.   

Even though Clara and Emily’s lives held much excitement, they wrote of a longing for the simpler life of their youth – Clara wrote that she hoped when she was as old as her mother (64 at the time), she would be pulling down the vines along the porch just as Fannie did.  Emily wrote in a 33-page recap of her journey home by steamer from Europe, that as she approached her “home on the hill” in Tallmadge what a welcoming sight it was to see lights in the windows.  Later letters consist of communications only between Clara and Emily as their other two sisters died early in their lives.  Clara shared the latter part of her life with husband, Edward Booth, at homes in Point Pleasant, NJ and Ormond Beach, FL, and Emily taught school most of her life, and also ran a winery out of her Lake Canandaigua (NY) summer cabin—a late 1800s former steamboat stop.   Their letters draw the reader into their worlds, bring about emotions that they must have felt, and truly give insight into what life was like over 100 years ago. 

The Wolcotts left behind 1,163 letters which were found in boxes in Emily Wolcott’s NY summer cabin after her death in 1953.  Those letters were summarized by Emily’s 3rd cousin, Elizabeth Jones Yeargin (and my mother’s first cousin), in 1995, and the originals are now part of the Special Collections Dept. in the Kent State University archives.  In 1997, another cache of Wolcott letters (167) was donated to the Queens Historical Society, as they were found in the attic of a home once owned by Emily in Queens.  She told the owners when she sold the home (year unknown) that she would “be back to get the boxes in the attic” but she never did.  Thankfully, someone felt them worth saving!  The Queens’ letters, in particular, contain most of the descriptions and sketches Clara Wolcott Driscoll made of her famous lamps designed for Mr. Tiffany.  Just recently, I have discovered twenty-five diaries (span 1932-1950) at an upstate NY historical society which were left behind by Emily Wolcott and they have been given to me!  (UPDATE 6/09: I gave the diaries to Kent State University Special Collections archives to be preserved as that is where the 1,163 round-robin letters are held.) 

Noted Western Reserve historian and writer, Tobi Battista, said in presentation she gave in Tallmadge in 2006, “History as we have learned through letters in the past will be lost forever in the future with the age of the email.”  How sad!  Those letters of old are such a treasure!